Shortly after signing the group to his Grand Royal Records label, Beastie Boy Mike D said the young members of Bis were the richest kids in the music business. Reminded of this statement a few years later, Bis' Amanda MacKinnon, a.k.a. Manda Rin, busts Mike D for "lying a lot at the beginning." The only thing open at Grand Royal, it turns out, was Mike D's mouth--not his checkbook. Sure, the band may be the most outspoken and ambitious of its generation, but it is definitely not the richest. With an average age of 23, Bis has garnered the criticism of the mostly adult press for being young and loud, which is, well, the point. More important, they've also gained the adoration and respect of youth universal for their teen-flavored anthems, including the Teen-C mission statement (which made its first appearance on 1995's Transmissions on the Teen-C Tip EP, released on Spanish indie label Acuarelia) that Bis disciples swear by.
The Teen-C tip, if you will, is this: "We are young and subversive. The time for revolution is now. Conformity sucks!" If that sounds awkward and overambitious, that's because it was formulated in 1994 by MacKinnon and her bandmates, brothers Sci-Fi Steven and John Disco--three like-minded teenagers in the bloom of youth in Glasgow, Scotland. Just like any kids, they were growing up and becoming disillusioned with the world they were growing into. Their "dissatisfaction of the adulthood expected of them and a distaste of the powers that surround them" couldn't help but appear in their teen manifestos, songs/screeds against everything from "fake D.I.Y." major labels to creepy boyfriends ("Kill Yr Boyfriend").
That dissatisfaction was in evidence on the band's first disc for Grand Royal, 1997's The New Transistor Heroes. And while Bis' second full-length album, Social Dancing, released last year, marked the first omission of the phrase "Teen-C," the gist of the movement was omnipresent. However, with the recent release of a mini-album Music for a Stranger World on UK label Wiiija, the band has moved even further away from its original agenda. On the phone from her parents' house in Glasgow, MacKinnon reflects on the development of the group over the last five years, both as musicians and as people.
"Teen-C was something we talked about when we were 17 because we hadn't really experienced much, and that was how we felt growing up," she says. "It meant so much to us that people were picking on our ages and we were just kind of fighting for ourselves. Now we've experienced so much, we've traveled the world, we've had lots of ups and downs, and we've got so much more to write about than Teen-C. And we're not teenagers anymore, so I don't feel that I can write about that and be honest. I hope that the stuff we did talk about made sense to people who are that age now, and we'll maybe continue talking about it."
Following the release of Social Dancing, in the group's characteristic D.I.Y. spirit, Bis left Grand Royal Records, citing poor label support as their reason. With their contract up for renewal for a third album, the band simply felt that with all the "fake, smiley people" running Grand Royal's distributor Capitol Records--and even Grand Royal itself--they would rather be on an independent label that appreciates the band's music. Currently recording a proper follow-up to Social Dancing, and working independently this time, MacKinnon has hope for reaching more fans. More mature fans.
It makes sense that the band is beginning to leave behind its teen audience. At this point, the members of Bis are naturally grappling with new, less adolescent issues and have an altogether different perspective. For example, MacKinnon speaks with glee about her recently purchased flat and increased artistic and personal freedom. At the same time, the wise-beyond-her-years musician also laments the criticism of those who accuse the group of hypocrisy.
"It really annoys me that people bring something up that I said five years ago and say that I'm a hypocrite because I say something else now," MacKinnon says. "I am still pretty young, but five years is a quarter of my life. I don't want to have to answer to anyone. I want to do what I think."
MacKinnon and the band have always done exactly that; for Bis, doing it yourself has also meant, at times, doing it for yourself as well. With idols like Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker and the whole Riot Grrrl movement, Bis set out at the tender age of 16 to rock the world of pop music, dropping sugar-coated bombs, bricks wrapped in cotton candy. In its attempts to do so, the music has always been as important as the message. Bis has consistently cross-pollinated its music with everything from disco and synth-based '80s music to ska and pogo-inducing punk, seeing no reason to be limited to one sound or format.
Of course, that doesn't mean the lesson isn't just as crucial to the equation. The band has been more than vocal about expressing dissent with social mores, trends, pop culture, and adult behavior. In fact, it's a bit of a shock to discover that the timid, sweet voice on the other end of the line is the same Manda Rin who rails emphatically against plastic celebrities and abusive boyfriends. Still, she never comes across as dogmatic or egotistical, just convicted and concerned. Exhibiting a bit of youthful female uncertainty, MacKinnon can't help but punctuate each thought with a self-conscious giggle.
There is little in the way of self-consciousness on Music for a Stranger World. The disc picks up where Social Dancing left off with the trio still vocally bucking the system. While Bis could be characterized by its impudent manner of screaming, squealing, and shouting through songs, the last two recordings have shown evidence of growth--the band actually sings and sings well on Stranger World. Both albums reflect the recent maturity and genre-bending attitude of its creators. Much to their dismay, Bis was once pigeonholed for that cutesy high-pitched screaming, their punky group anthems, and pseudo Japanime caricatures as album art. Now, the songs sound more like a finished product instead of off-the-cuff punk interludes. Stranger World is darker and "weird emotionally," according to MacKinnon. It's also more house-style electronic, a direction that was hinted at on Social Dancing.
MacKinnon confronts the misconceptions about the band head-on, explaining the group's more adult new material. "I'm quite into releasing stuff that surprises people," she says. "Some people in America have this idea that we're this cheesy animated band, and I really don't want that reputation."
These polished gems buzz, crackle, and pop with such spirited energy that resistance to dancing is futile at best. "Dead Wrestlers" is an angular electronic successor to "Eurodisco," the dance-floor single from Social Dancing. Despite its booty-shaking factor, the song still has something to say about politics, artificiality, and nonconformity. Similarly, "How Can We Be Strange?" is about expressing "strangeness" in spite of peer pressure to be normal. It doesn't take much to get to the band's point.
That's because everything's out in the open when it comes to Bis' message, never shrouded in metaphor or intricate storytelling, like, say, Leonard Cohen. The members of Bis don't pretend to be poets, relying on their spunkiness to set them above their peers in the music industry. Rarely do musicians this age go beyond teenage obsessions and infatuation; the brothers Hanson write their own songs, but do they really have anything to say? Bis does: For example, as "I'm a Slut" on Dancing did before it, "Are You Ready?" boldly addresses domestic abuse and low self-esteem.
"It's a subject that nobody likes to talk about, though one in every three households has domestic violence," MacKinnon says. "It's not a thing that a lot of people would talk about in a song because they know it wouldn't get in the charts, but I don't really care about the charts. I like to write about that because I'd like to express that to the age group we appeal to. We write about things that really affect people. People get so swallowed up in a relationship at our age and give up everything for someone else."
For her part, MacKinnon feels swallowed up by the injustice in the overtly patriarchal music industry. She regrets the gender inequality and press snobbery, the white-boys club that still thinks women aren't capable of doing any of the heavy lifting in a band.
"I don't feel I'm as respected as much as a male musician would be, and I'm fed up with it," she says. "One of these kind of technology magazines wanted to do an interview with only John and Steven. Why is that when we're these three songwriters who created these songs?" She pauses, letting the question sink in. "They would interview me for teen mags, and that annoys me because I'm not just a face in a band, whereas most people are. I'm a songwriter. Maybe I talk about a lot of issues more than them, which is why I'm in girl magazines more. And that's fine--I don't mind that at all because a lot of girls are inspired by what other female musicians have to say--but that tells me that there's a long way to go before women are accepted in music."
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Which is why, while MacKinnon doesn't hide her love of "cheesy chart music" and an affinity for Britney Spears' ...Baby One More Time, she is disgusted with dimwitted girl groups like the Spice Girls.
"For manufactured bands to come from nowhere and say 'Yeah, girl power!' and have nothing to base it on, really annoyed me," she complains. "When they start to claim to be something that I don't think they are, that's when it really begins to annoy me. It's so hypocritical. Never once have I heard them mention Riot Grrrls, which is one of the biggest women's movements in music. I don't know how they can't mention it. I think people are harmless until they come out and talk about things that they don't understand. Then they're kind of damaging to their younger audience."
This zealous stance against the mainstream and a pure love of music are what keep the members of Bis going and keep their listeners interested. Stranger World still exhibits Bis' affinity for Blur and the Cars, but with each release, the group is sounding a more unique voice. MacKinnon explains the group's dynamic and the reason they've existed for what is an eternity considering the common 15-minute fame of most teenage one-hit wonders.
"This band means the world to me; it's everything I've always wanted to do," she says matter-of-factly. "At the end of the day we all agree that it's one of the most important things in our life. That's what keeps us together."